Welcome to Any Given Friday, where we love watching any game where you can see the announcer’s breath in the booth while we’re warm and cozy at home in our Snuggie, where we can’t remember the last time all 32 teams played on one day, and where we think the best hit Brian Urlacher has made all year came on the coin tossed before OT Monday night.
If you ask me, it’s the best term in sports. “Controlling your own destiny”. So grand. So powerful. On Sunday night, Bob Costas said it was one of his pet peeves. He explained that destiny, by definition, cannot be controlled. Well, I say Bob Costas is a dirty commie, and should be hung from the highest flagpole at the earliest opportunity.
Controlling your own destiny is what America is all about. Hell, controlling your own destiny is how America came to be. The Brits had to make the road trip over here and win on our turf, and we said, “Not in our house!” And we’re still kickin’ ass and takin’ names 230+ years later. If Costas doesn’t like that, he can take his dictionary and go broadcast pro football in China or North Korea or someplace.
But honestly, isn’t that what we all want out of life -- a chance to prove ourselves worthy, a chance to succeed or fail on our own terms? Of course, it is. This is America, dammit! And I won't stand here while you bad-mouth the United States of America!
So, before we look at the games, let's review who is the master of their domain, and who is left scoreboard watching from the sidelines...
TEAMS WHO CONTROL THEIR OWN DESTINY:
Each of the following teams make the playoffs with a win. Some can make it with a loss if they get help, but some of those permutations are so complicated I got a headache just thinking about thinking about them.
Miami (10-5) -- A win at the Jets, and the Dolphins win the AFC East.
Baltimore (10-5) -- A win at home vs. Jacksonville, and the Ravens make the playoffs as the last wild card in the AFC.
Denver (8-7)* -- A win at San Diego, and the Broncos win the AFC West.
Minnesota (9-6)* -- A win at home against the Giants, and the Vikings win the NFC North.
Dallas (9-6)* -- A win at Philly, and the Cowboys are in as a wild card.
San Diego (7-8) -- A win at home vs. Denver, and the Chargers win the AFC West.
TEAMS WHO NEED HELP:
Okay, here’s where it gets complicated. In other words, this is where I cut and paste from ESPN.com.
New England (10-5) -- The Patriots clinch the AFC East title with a New England win and Miami loss or tie OR New England tie and Miami loss. The Patriots clinch a wild-card spot with a New England win and Baltimore loss or tie OR New England tie and Baltimore loss.
Chicago (9-6) -- The Bears clinch the NFC North with a Chicago win and Minnesota loss or tie OR Chicago tie and Minnesota loss. The Bears clinch a wild-card spot with a Chicago win and Dallas loss or tie and Tampa Bay loss or tie OR Chicago tie and Dallas loss and Tampa Bay loss.
Philadelphia (8-6-1)** -- The Eagles clinch a wild-card spot with a Philadelphia win and Tampa Bay loss and Minnesota loss OR Philadelphia win and Tampa Bay loss and Chicago loss.
Tampa Bay (9-6)** -- The Buccaneers clinch a wild-card spot with a Tampa Bay win and Dallas loss or tie OR Tampa Bay tie and Dallas loss and Minnesota loss or tie OR Tampa Bay tie and Dallas loss and Chicago loss or tie OR Tampa Bay tie and Dallas tie and Minnesota tie and Chicago win or tie OR Tampa Bay tie and Dallas tie and Chicago tie and Minnesota win or tie.
NY Jets (9-6)** -- The Jets clinch the AFC East title with a Jets win and New England loss. The Jets clinch a wild-card spot with a Jets win and Baltimore loss.
* “If at first you don't succeed...": Teams who still control their destiny despite losing last week.
** “Sheepishly hoping": Teams who had controlled their destiny until they lost last week.
Kansas City (2-13) at Cincinnati (3-11-1)
Cincinnati: What in the [SITE DECORUM] has gotten into Bengals RB Cedric Benson? After being cut by the Bears following a rough, two arrest off-season, Benson languished on the waiver wire into the regular season before being picked up by the RB-poor Bengals. Benson did almost nothing for Cincinnati (including three games with sub-2 YPC’s), before last week, when he put up 161 total yards in a win over the Redskins. Sunday, he backed up that effort with an even better one (38 carries, 171 yards). I know every dog has its day (especially for RB’s in the NFL), but it’s shocking to see this from Benson, who’s running style is so zombie-like, I imagine him groaning, “Brains... Brains...” as he stumbles for another two yard gain.
Kansas City: A few weeks back I told you KC QB Tyler Thigpen was a player to watch. Last week, against a Miami D which hadn’t allowed a TD in three games, he engineered four in the 1st half alone, and put up his first 300-yard game. During the game, the announcers mentioned a story I didn’t know: Thigpen tried to force a trade this past off-season, and the Packers made an offer, but KC refused to settle for a 2nd round choice. That tells me the Chiefs (at least the out-going administration) really like what they saw in Thigpen even before he got playing time.
In that game, T Damion McIntosh had two of the most violently effective pancake blocks you’ll ever see. Not only that, he had them both on the same play. Sure, those guys are DB’s and he outweighs them by 150 pounds, but he stacked them -- just like real pancakes.
The pick: BENGALS
Cleveland (4-11) at Pittsburgh (11-4)
The ugliest game of last week, and arguably the year... Hell, maybe the millennium, was Bengals 14, Browns 0. Any game the Browns play in right now is ugly. A few ugly notes about this ugly game from this ugly team. WARNING: Looking directly at these notes may cause you to turn to stone:
--The Browns have not scored an offensive TD in five weeks (covering 57 possessions).
--The Browns gave up as many points on offense as they did defense (one TD was an interception return).
--Browns QB Ken Dorsey was so bad (10/17, 68 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT), he got benched in favor of the recently signed Bruce Gradkowski (2/5, 8 yards, INT).
--The Browns lost despite holding QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to this stat line: 5/9, 55 yards, TD. That looks like the line of a guy knocked out in the 1st quarter, not a winning QB.
Then they capped off their week by having their QB of the future get punched in the face by one of his own D-lineman. Merry Christmas, Browns fans!
The pick: STEELERS
St. Louis (2-13) at Atlanta (10-5)
During the Saturday night game, the NFL Network’s Adam Schefter reported that Ravens defensive coordinator came in second to Mike Smith in the Atlanta head coaching search. That search was led by executive Billy Devaney, who is just named Rams GM. According to Schefter, Devaney was quite enamored of Ryan last year, so after the year the Ravens have had, I wouldn’t be the least surprised to see Buddy’s boy as the new head man in St. Louis.
The pick: FALCONS
New England (10-5) at Buffalo (7-8)
I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember Houston Oilers RB Lorenzo White, but he earned the nickname “Bigfoot” because he was especially effective is wet and/or snowy conditions due to, well, his big feet. It looks like New England may have their own Bigfoot sighting.
In training camp, there was some talk about the Patriots signing LaMont Jordan for the same reason. Jordan barely got any work at all through most of the regular season for the Pats -- going into last week, he had just 28 carries -- but as soon as they hit bad weather, he has re-appeared.
Faced with sloppy conditions last week at Oakland after a rainstorm, New England went with Jordan, who compiled 12 carries for 97 yards and a TD as the Pats scored 49 points. This week, playing in a blizzard, New England made Jordan their primary ballcarrier against the Cardinals, and got more good results -- 20 carries, 79 yards, 2 TD’s -- while scoring 47 points. As the Pats head into more bad weather next week, and the playoffs (should they make it), look for Jordan to continue to play an increased role.
The pick: PATRIOTS
Detroit (0-15) at Green Bay (5-10)
The way Green Bay’s season is going, they just might be the team that gets beat by Detroit. The Packers are 0-7 in games decided by four points or less. On Monday night football last week alone, they lost a game because a big 4th down play at the end of the game went against them by an inch on an iffy spot, a blocked kick at the end of regulation, and an overtime toss which went against them after it hit Brian Urlacher’s helmet. If that doesn’t make you feel cursed, I don’t know what would. Well, maybe losing at home to an 0-15 team...
The pick: PACKERS
NY Giants (12-3) at Minnesota (9-6)
Last week, Tarvaris led Vikes in passing (233), rushing (76), fumbles (3), and fumbles lost (2). Those last two aren’t good. And it wasn’t an uncontested race for most fumbles, either -- the team had seven fumbles total, losing four. The Vikes appeared completely ill-prepared for the intensity level early, but hung around and made it close. I was surprised head coach never went with Gus Frerotte, but with the season on the line this week, look for a quicker hook.
The big question is whether the Giants will be able to maintain their intensity with nothing on the line. I say they play hard, and win.
The pick: GIANTS
Tennessee (13-2) at Indianapolis (11-4)
Another sketchy/lucky/close win for Indy last Thursday night. With less than a minute left, the Colts led 31-24, but the Jags appeared to be driving for the tying score. Maurice Jones-Drew short pass down to the Indy 7-yard line with more than a half minute left, but was hurt on the play. Because the Jags had no timeouts left, there was a 10 second runoff. Once the clock was would, QB David Garrard wasted a few seconds before calling for the snap, then overthrew wide-open WR Reggie Williams in the back of the end zone. Cris Collinsworth mentioned on the NFL Network telecast that there were other receivers open on the play as well. But with :12 left, the Jags had at least two plays left to try and score -- unless Garrard took a sack. Garrard took a sack. Time ran out. Game over.
The Colts have had a ton of games like this in ‘08. If it’s not MJD getting hurt on the worst possible play and Garrard taking an unthinkable sack, it’s Sage Rosenfels fumbling away a 17-point lead with less than five minutes left, or the Vikes blowing one after leading the Colts 15-0 with 1:30 left in the 3rd quarter. It’s been that kind of year in Indy. But while they’ve been very fortunate, they’re also a little scary in terms of the playoffs.
Why? Who made that last sack to ice the game last week? Both DE Dwight Freeney (7.5 sacks in the last seven games), with help from DE Robert Mathis (6.5 sacks in the last five games). And how did the Colts put up 31 points? A guy by the name of Peyton Manning. He started out with 17 straight completions (with the six he had from the previous game, he only missed McNabb’s NFL record of 24 by one). Check out his numbers for the game: 29/34, 364 yards, 3 TD. That’s 85% completions, a 140.7 rating, and a 10.71 YPA. When he plays like that, they might be able to knock off a top seed -- like, say, the team they’re playing this week. But the Colts are known for pulling their starters early in meaningless games, so I won’t take them here.
The pick: TITANS
Oakland (4-11) at Tampa Bay (9-6)
Three weeks ago, the Bucs looked like odds-on bets to win their division, but after losing two tough division games on the road, they needed a win Sunday and some help to control their own destiny for a wild card. They got help from the Ravens, who beat Dallas on Saturday night, so Tampa knew they only needed a win Sunday to be back in the driver’s seat.
But despite another big day from Antonio Bryant (6 catches, 127 yards, TD), the Bucs were outscored 21-0 in the 4th quarter at home to blow a lead and lose to San Diego. As if that weren’t enough, the collapse was punctuated by this hit on Jeff Garcia by CB Quentin Jammer, which left Garcia looking like he got hit in the face with a shovel. Lucky for him, he was already ugly to begin with.
Tampa’s loss allowed Dallas to sneak back in to the “controlling their own destiny” situation, but the Bucs are not completely out of the playoff picture just yet. They can still earn a berth with a win at home next week over Oakland and a Philly win at home over Dallas.
The pick: BUCS
Carolina (11-4) at New Orleans (8-7)
When exactly did DeAngelo Williams go from “Good” to “Holy crap, he’s awesome!”? Probably around the time rookie T Jeff Otah helped make the Carolina O-line dominant, but he’s looks better at breaking tackles in the open field as well. Not that he wasn’t effective before (4.1 YPC in ‘06, 5.0 in ‘07), but this year he has a 5.5 average, more yards than his first two years combined, and an NFL-high 18 rushing TD’s -- after scoring five total in his first two years. He’s also one 30+ yard TD run in this game from tying Jim Brown’s all-time single-season record, set in 1958.
The Panthers need this game to clinch the division (assuming a Falcons win vs. St. Louis), so it will be very tough for Brees to get the 401 yards he needs to break Marino’s record.
The pick: PANTHERS
Chicago (9-6) at Houston (7-8)
Chicago needs to win and get some help -- preferable a Vikings loss the the Giants. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, especially considering how the Bears have been living lately.
Playing New Orleans at home two weeks ago, they had to kick a tying FG on the last play of regulation to force OT, where they won. Last week, playing Green Bay at home, they had to score a TD in the final minutes to tie, then block a FG in the final seconds to force OT, where again they won. They’re doing just enough to win and getting the breaks -- that 4th down play they got by an inch vs the Packers looked to a generous spot (yet was unreviewable by to the bad camera angles on the play).
But the Texans had been playing well before the laid an egg in Oakland last week. I think they’d very much like to finish 8-8 (their record last year) and knock out a potential playoff team if only to make a statement. I also think they can get it done.
The pick: TEXANS
Washington (8-7) at San Francisco (6-9)
How many of you thought the Niners would win after Donnie Avery’s (temporarily) game-saving catch in the closing minutes of the Rams/Niners game? If you did, you're a better fan than I.
As I’m sure you recall, it was 4th and 9 with just :37 remaining, and the Niners were one play away from wrapping up a miraculous victory. Marc Bulger dropped back to pass, and threw for Avery on the sideline. Walt Harris cut in front and leaped high, tipping the ball. For a moment, I stood to celebrate... Until it was still caught by Avery. I didn’t think he got his feet in, but the officials ruled he did -- and replays confirmed it.
I’m not sure which is the more amazing thing about the play for me: That Avery was able to catch the ball cleanly -- without the slightest bobble, which would’ve taken him out of bounds, or the last second toe-tap he pulled off to complete the catch. Either way, I was absolutely certain the Niners were losing after that. Glad I was wrong. The Niners are surprising me -- in good ways -- a lot lately.
The pick: NINERS
Seattle (4-11) at Arizona (8-7)
Another game against a team fighting for the playoffs, another 21-0 deficit for Arizona. Last week, I mentioned the Cards had fallen behind 21-0 at home to Minnesota in 12 minutes after falling behind 21-0 at Philly on Thanksgiving in 21 minutes. On Sunday, it took them 18 minutes, so at least they’re pretty consistent.
So much for that MVP talk. Like his team, Arizona QB Kurt Warner is limping to the finish line it what not long ago looked to be a dream season. Last week in the snow at New England he went 6/18, 30 yards, 1.7 YPA. Look at those stats again. Those are Pickett-esque.
The pick: CARDS
Dallas (9-6) at Philadelphia (8-5-1)
The Cowboys are lucky to still control their destiny after a brutal effort at home vs. the Ravens in the last game at Texas Stadium. QB Tony Romo had a horrendous first three quarters, compiling only 72 yards passing and throwing two big picks -- both to Ed Reed. Once Romo heated up and got the Cowboys back into the game, the defense opened up wide for two 77+ yard runs in the final four minutes to ice the game -- both on 1st and 10 plays when Dallas knew the Ravens would run to try and burn clock. On both plays, Dallas S Ken Hamlin missed tackles to allow the big gains.
The ultimate irony was revealed after the game: Jerry Jones actually asked the league in the offseason to allow the Cowboys to play Baltimore for the last game at Texas stadium. Out of all their opponents, Jones thought that would be the easiest game to win. The Ravens reportedly got wind of this and used it as a motivating factor. How ‘bout them Cowboys?
On thing did go the Cowboys’ way this week -- the start time of this game. By starting at 4pm EST, the Eagles may already know they are eliminated (If Tampa wins, or both Chicago and Minnesota win), and that could conceivably affect their effort.
The pick: COWBOYS
Jacksonville (5-10) at Baltimore (10-5)
Baltimore doesn’t scare with their offense, and they shouldn’t. Joe Flacco has topped 200 yards passing this season only four times, and Ravens receiver have just three 100-yard games this season. They rely on a running game which until last week had only had two 90-yard days by RB’s all year (both Willis McGahee and Le Ron McClain had one vs. Dallas).
But what the Ravens do do (tee-hee) is all the small things. Flacco doesn’t generally make the big mistake, the defense makes big plays (see: Reed, Ed), and their coaching staff appears to maximize their talents. But more than anything, they seem to do those things which defy categorization -- those little things you need to win. A couple of examples from their big win at Dallas last week::
--Ravens WR Derrick Mason is a little guy by football standards, but he showed big cojones last Saturday night. Mason dislocated a shoulder early in the game, took a pain-killing shot, and came back to play, recovering a crucial fumble, and converting it into a TD catch a few plays later.
--John Harbaugh may have come in a distant third in rookie coach poll, but he responded by making what was probably the coaching move of Week 16. Already up 9-7 on the road with four minutes left in the 3rd quarter, he called for a fake punt. P Sam Koch got the 1st down, and it led to a TD which put Baltimore up 16-7 in a game they eventually won 33-24.
The pick: RAVENS
Miami (10-5) at NY Jets (9-6)
Miami: Last week, playing in their first cold weather game of the season -- and the coldest game in Miami Dolphin history(!) -- the ‘Phins had two turnovers, after only having 10 all year (they still have the fewest ever by two over the 1990 Giants). They allowed four 1st half TD’s, after no TD’s at all for three straight games. And they did this against the Chiefs.
Jets: There’s been some whining out of Boston about the time of this game being moved back to 4pm EST -- Pats fans are afraid the Jets will know they’re out of the playoffs by then, and won’t give full effort. I think that’s silly. What more could Mangini or Favre want more than to knock Pennington from the playoffs -- otherwise, they’ll act as his welcome mat to the playoffs. The bigger worry should come from what Brett Favre has done recently in cold weather games.
Stat O’ The Week: In his first 35 starts in games with a temperature under 34 degrees, Brett Favre was 35-0. In his last 15 starts, he’s 6-9.
The pick: DOLPHINS
Denver (8-7) at San Diego (7-8)
How psyched is Ed Hochuli that his bad call won't cost the Chargers a playoff trip? Even if the Chargers win that first game in Denver, these teams would be 8-7 and 7-8 (just reversed) and the AFC Worst would still come down to this game, right? WRONG! Even with a loss, San Diego would have the division tiebreaker and would’ve won the division. So "Eddie Guns" better be rooting hard for the Chargers in this one. With all the teams still alive, and all the different permutations, this is the only game where both teams have clear win-and-in, lose-and-out situations. For that reason among others, NBC used their flex option to choose this game. Coincidently, flexing is another thing Ed Hochuli knows all about.
Last week, I wrote in this space that Denver has been able to pass all year, but has struggled with the running game due to a number of injuries. Last week, those storylines continued. With a chance to clinch the AFC West with a win at home against Buffalo (losers of seven of eight, win the only win vs. KC), QB Jay Cutler threw for 359 yards and set a franchise record 4,210 passing yards (Crazy note: He didn’t break John Elway’s record -- it belonged to Jake Plummer). But their leading rusher was WR Eddie Royal, who only had one carry. Granted, he took that carry 71 yards, but that’s not a good sign. Neither was the player who had the most carries: Cutler, with eight. PJ Pope became the sixth RB to start for the Broncos this year, but had to leave with a hamstring injury. Selvin Young took over, but had to leave with a pinched nerve in his neck. So Tatum Bell, the last healthy RB on the roster, was forced into action.
Last week, I wrote this half-assed joke:
"Last I heard, the Broncos had just placed this ad on Craig’s List: 'RB WANTED -- NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY'."
This week, the Broncos signed two guys they’d previously cut. If that isn’t a case of life imitating half-assed humor, then I don’t know what is.
The Chargers haven’t been all that good the last few weeks -- they got lucky (like, three times) to beat the Chiefs, and took advantage of a slumping Tampa team -- but I think you need to ask yourself two questions:
1) Can we see Hochuli getting off the hook?
2) Can we have an 8-8 team in the playoffs?
Yes, we can.
The pick: CHARGERS
LAST WEEK: 8-8